The Communal, Prosocial Narcissist as Compulsive Giver

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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“By gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs”


Proverb of the Inuit of Greenland

“(The) Israeli zoologist Amotz Zahavi (suggested that) (a)ltruistic giving may be an advertisement of dominance and superiority. Anthropologists know it as the Potlach Effect ...  Only a genuinely superior individual can afford to advertise the fact by means of a costly gift ... through costly demonstrations of superiority, including ostentatious generosity and public spirited risk taking... (I)f Zahavi is right ... conspicuous generosity (is) a way of buying unfakeably authentic (self-)advertising.”

(Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, pp. 249-251)

"'Up in our country we are human!' said the (inuit) hunter. 'And since we are human we help each other. We don't like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.'"


(Debt -- Updated and Expanded: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber, Melville House, 2011)


There are two types of narcissists: (I) Stingy and mean and (II) compulsive givers. Most narcissists feel abused and exploited when they have to pay money in order to satisfy the needs and wishes of their "nearest" and "dearest".

Not so the compulsive givers.

To all appearances, the compulsive giver is an altruistic, empathic, and caring person. Actually, he or she is a people-pleaser and a codependent. The compulsive giver is trapped in a narrative of his own confabulation: how his nearest and dearest need him because they are poor, young, inexperienced, lacking in intelligence or good looks, and are otherwise inferior to him. Compulsive giving, therefore, involves pathological narcissism.

The ostentatious largesse of codependent compulsive givers is intended to secure the presence and attachment of their "loved" ones and to fend off looming (and, in their mind, inevitable abandonment.) By giving inexorably they aim to foster in the recipient an addictive habit and thus prevent them from leaving.

In reality, it is the compulsive giver who coerces, cajoles, and tempts people around him to avail themselves of his services or money. He forces himself on the recipients of his ostentatious largesse and the beneficiaries of his generosity or magnanimity. He is unable to deny anyone their wishes or a requests, even when these are not explicit or expressed and are mere figments of his own neediness and grandiose imagination.


Inevitably, he develops unrealistic expectations. He feels that people should be immensely grateful to him and that their gratitude should translate into a kind of obsequiousness. Internally, he seethes and rages against the lack of reciprocity he perceives in his relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. He mutely castigates everyone around him for being so ungenerous. To the compulsive giver, giving is perceived as sacrifice and taking is exploitation. Thus, he gives without grace, always with visible strings attached. No wonder he is always frustrated and often aggressive.


In psychological jargon, we would say that the compulsive giver has alloplastic defenses with an external locus of control. This simply means that he relies on input from people around him to regulate his fluctuating sense of self-worth, his precarious self-esteem, and his ever shifting moods. It also means that he blames the world for his failures. He feels imprisoned in a hostile and mystifying universe, entirely unable to influence events, circumstances, and outcomes. He thus avoids assuming responsibility for the consequences of his actions.

(continued below)

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Yet, it is important to realize that the compulsive giver cherishes and relishes his self-conferred victimhood and nurtures his grudges by maintaining a meticulous accounting of everything he gives and receives. This mental operation of masochistic bookkeeping is a background process of which the compulsive giver is sometimes unaware. He is likely to vehemently deny such meanness and narrow-mindedness.


The compulsive giver is an artist of projective identification. He manipulates his closest into behaving exactly the way he expects them to. He keeps lying to them and telling them that the act of giving is the only reward he seeks. All the while he secretly yearns for reciprocity. He rejects any attempt to rob him of his sacrificial status - he won't accept gifts or money and he avoids being the recipient or beneficiary of help or compliments. These false asceticism and fake modesty are mere baits. He uses them to prove to himself that his nearest and dearest are nasty ingrates. "If they wanted to (give me a present or help me), they would have insisted" - he bellows triumphantly, his worst fears and suspicions yet again confirmed.


Gradually, people fall into line. They begin to feel that they are the ones who are doing the compulsive giver a favor by succumbing to his endless and overweening charity. "What can we do?" - they sigh - "It means so much to him and he has put so much effort into it! I just couldn't say no." The roles are reversed and everyone is happy: the beneficiaries benefit and the compulsive giver goes on feeling that the world is unjust and people are self-centered exploiters. As he always suspected.


The Narcissist’s Relationship with Money


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When the narcissist has money, he can exercise his sadistic urges freely and with little fear of repercussions. Money shields him from life itself, from the outcomes and consequences of his actions; it insulates him warmly and safely, like a benevolent blanket, like a mother's good night kiss. Yes, money is undoubtedly a love substitute and it allows the narcissist to be his ugly, corrupt, and dilapidated self. Money buys the narcissist absolution and his ego-syntonic friendship, forgiveness, and acceptance. With money in the bank, the narcissist feels at ease with himself, free, arrogantly soaring supreme above the contemptible, unwashed masses.

With money lining his proverbial pockets, the narcissist can always find people poorer than him, a cause for great elation coupled with ostentatious disdain and bumptiousness on his part.

The narcissist rarely uses money to buy, corrupt, and intimidate outright. He is more subtle than that. Contrary to common stereotype, the narcissist’s avarice seldom devolves into conspicuous consumption. Many narcissists wear 15 year old tattered clothes, have no car, no house, and no property. It is so even when the narcissist can afford better.

Money has little to do with the narcissist’s actual physical needs or even with his social interactions. True, the narcissist leverages lucre to acquire status, or to impress others. But most narcissists conceal the true extent of their wealth, hoard it, accumulate it and, like the misers that they are at heart, count it daily and in the dark. Money is the narcissist’s licence to sin and to abuse, his permit, a promise and its fulfillment all at once. It unleashes the beast in the narcissist and, with abandon, encourages him - nay, seduces him - to be himself.

Narcissists are not necessarily tight-fisted, though. Many a narcissist spend money on restaurants and trips abroad and books and health products. They buy gifts (though reluctantly and as a maintenance chore). Narcissists addictively gamble and speculate and lose fortunes. The narcissist is insatiable, always wants more, always loses the little that he has. But he does all this not for the love of money, for he does not use it to gratify his self or to cater to his needs. No, he does not crave money, nor care for it. It is the power that it bestows on him that matters: the legitimacy to dare, to flare, to conquer, to oppose, to resist, to taunt, and to torment.

In all his relationships, the narcissist is either the vanquished or the vanquisher; either the haughty master, or an abject slave; either the dominant, or the recessive. The narcissist interacts along the up-down axis, rather than along the left-right one. His world is rigidly hierarchical and abusively stratified. When submissive, he is contemptibly so. When domineering, he is disdainfully so. His life is a pendulum swinging between oppressed and oppressor.

To subjugate another, one must be capricious, unscrupulous, ruthless, obsessive, hateful, vindictive, and penetrating. One must spot the cracks of vulnerability, the crumbling foundations of susceptibility, the pains, the trigger mechanisms, the Pavlovian reactions of hate, and fear, and hope, and anger. Money liberates the narcissist’s mind and unleashes his cold empathy. It endows him with the tranquillity, detachment, and incisiveness of a natural scientist.

With his mind free of the quotidian, the narcissist can concentrate on attaining the desired position: on top, dreaded, and shunned - yet obeyed and deferred to. He then proceeds with cool disinterest to unscramble the human jigsaw puzzles, to manipulate their parts, to enjoy their anguish as he exposes their petty misconduct, harps on their failures, compares them to their betters, and mocks their incompetence, hypocrisy, and cupidity. The narcissist cloaks his misdeeds in socially acceptable garb - only to draw the dagger. He casts himself in the role of a brave, incorruptible iconoclast, a fighter for social justice, for a better future, for more efficiency, for good causes, an altruist, or an empathic and selfless benefactor. But it is all about his sadistic urges, really. It is all about death, not life.

Still, antagonizing and alienating potential benefactors is a pleasure that the narcissist cannot afford on an empty purse. When impoverished, he is altruism embodied: the best of friends, the most caring of tutors, a benevolent guide, a lover of humanity, and a fierce fighter against narcissism, sadism, and abuse in all their forms. He adheres, he obeys, he succumbs, he agrees wholeheartedly, he praises, condones, idolizes, and applauds. He is the perfect audience, an admirer and an adulator, a worm and an amoeba: spineless, adaptable in form, slithery flexibility itself. To behave this way for long is unbearable, hence the narcissist’s addiction to money (really, to freedom) in all its forms. It is his evolutionary ladder from slime to the sublime and henceforth to mastery.

The Narcissist’s Puppets on the Receiving End

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The recipients of the narcissist’s tainted and conditional “largesse” similarly equate money with love. Craving the latter, they settle for the former. With so many strings attached to the narcissist’s “gifts” they end up entangled and dangling like dysfunctional marionettes, puppets in the narcissist’s theatre of the absurd.

The psychodynamic dimensions of money and giving are myriad and crucial to maintaining the victim’s precarious inner balance. People embark of great feats of self-deception and cognitive dissonance to justify the sacrifices in self-respect, dignity, and the perception of reality that they have to make in order to remain on the narcissist’s good books.

But self-awareness is never far under the surface. Gradually, the human props in the narcissist’s staged plays rebel outwardly or inwardly: they become passive-aggressive, bitter, depressed, and paranoid. They feel alienated, dehumanized, objectified, and misunderstood. They seek to free themselves by becoming contumacious and unruly counterdependents – or by clinging to the narcissist and emotionally extorting all others as flaming codependents.

These reactive behavior patters are ingrained and hard to break. They ossify into the moulds in which the narcissist’s victims fester and putrefy, writhing in agony, and crumbling whenever the narcissist inflicts on them abuse in its many forms. If they do not extricate themselves in time, these victims gradually acquire many of the traits and behavior patterns of their narcissistic tormentors and form with them a shared psychosis, a mini-cult of domination and subjugation that is mediated via the ubiquitous dollar sign.

Giving generously to others makes them hate you: charity makes them feel like inferior, needy failures and they resent your ostentatious largesse at their expense. Being on the receiving end of advice, help, money, or anything else results in a narcissistic injury.

If you want people to like you, TAKE from them in a way that flatters their grandiosity! Ask them for a crucial favor! Compliment their knowledge, sagacity, talents, skills, or perspicacity. Thank them profusely and prostrately. Make them feel bigger and better than you in every which way.

The Benjamin Franklin Effect teaches us that so as to resolve the cognitive dissonance, even people who hate you but have helped you out will start to regard you in a more positive light in order to explain to themselves why they had assisted you in the first place.

The narcopath bestows his resources (attention, time, money, help, succor, sex) not because of WHO the recipient is but because of WHAT the recipient can provide him with in return for his largesse.

Even acts of charity and altruism are transactional and calculated to maximize returns of one kind (public admiration) or another (control). In return for any investment, however minimal, the narcopath expects at least 2 of the 3Ss: Supply, Sex, Services (the partner as a homemaker, personal assistant, business promoter, or protector). True attachment is, therefore, utterly excluded. Healthy love is person-oriented, not goal-focused; it is a stable emotion, not a fickle one; and it is independent on benefits obtained or aims attained.

The narcopath invests emotionally (cathects) in a succession of "intimate" partners who he grooms: idealizes, devalues, discards, and replaces them - and then, sometimes reidealizes and reacquires them (hoovering). This is the ever itinerant "cathexis lens": WHAT's (not WHO's) in it for me?

People cannot maintain two personality styles: one cold, impersonal, efficacious, and rigidly boundaried (for strangers) and the other warm, empathic, and inviting (for friends, family, or romantic interests)

Most people DECEIVE themselves into believing that there is no problem to make this separation, to put on these alternating masks or personas (Goffman, Jung) - but, in reality, no one can sustain such a charade for long.

If you try to maintain a duality of coterminous dichotomous personality styles, one of these facades would begin to feel like disingenuous acting and faking. It would create ego-dystony: a sensation of all-pervasive awkwardness, discomfort, and unease in multiple settings.

In time, this constant need to switch between the modes engenders anxiety and the only way to reduce it is to eliminate one of the two styles and become a unitary personality with a single outward facing behavioral and emotional interface.

There is a rare type of narcissist whose misanthropy and misogyny are so extreme that he gives up on both human society and intimate relationships altogether.

But, what about the narcissist’s much vaunted addiction to narcissistic supply and his much touted dependence on its sources: his mates, fans, students, co-workers?

The answer is:
self-supply. It is the most radical form of auto-libidinal cathected self-sufficient contemptuous grandiosity.

The cerebral narcissist values his intellect as so superior to everyone else’s that he much prefers to resort only to his own judgment and garner self-administered adulating accolades in his own mind.


Sometimes giving – even the giving of a mere advice - is perceived as a humiliating act.


I am good at what I do and my fees reflect this fact. When I advise my clients that, in their particular case or with regards to a particular issue, they can secure the same outcomes by resorting to a more affordable counsellor, they get offended and bristle at me.

Such reactions used to mystify me: why get angry at me for being honest and transparent about options? After all, in this time of economic hardship, I am only trying to minimize the expenditures of my charges.

A female client explained it to me: “Both a jalope (old, dilapidated car) and a Porsche can get you from point A to point B. But I have worked hard and long to be able to deserve a Porsche.”

Narcissists feel entitled to special treatment by the top honchos in every field. Only the best for them! It is a part of their grandiosity. They feel humiliated and rejected when they have to settle for less - even when identical favorable results are guaranteed at a much lower cost.

As I said: narcissism is a nauseating cocktail of stupidity and irrationality.


Misanthropy and Leadership


Virulently and sadistically misanthropic (actually asocial schizoid) narcissists end up as dismal failures and lonely losers. Their prosocial communal (overt and grandiose) brethren end up as astounding successes, replete with personality cults.

Gregarious narcissists are natural leaders. They grant their followers three wishes:

1. Acceptance and belonging via a group identity as a fan, follower, or acolyte;

2. Fake empathic attention and ersatz succor (the narcissist misrepresents himself as a self-sacrificial “lover of humanity”); and

3. Privileged access to the leader in a game of patronage and favoritism among the cronies in the coterie.


Narcissists always complain bitterly that they are being disrespected by one and all. Oftentimes, they are right - they just conveniently fail to recall who started it all.

Narcissists hold everyone in contempt as their inferiors. Consequently, they violate boundaries, trample on rights, contumaciously break rules, neglect chores, breach promises, egregiously abuse, and abrogate obligations and responsibilities.

Thus dishonored, or having witnessed the maltreatment of others, people around the narcissist, respond in kind. They lose any initial regard they may have held for the narcissist and they no longer feel bound by any interpersonal or social mores, codes, norms, values, rules, or agreement. They act antisocially (“reactive abuse”).

The narcissist is dissociative: the gaps in his memory result in discontinuity and identity disturbance. So, he resents being punished for earlier misdeeds which he has only a vague recollection of: he cannot form chains of cause and effect in his disorganized mind. He just feels suddenly and inexplicably malevolently attacked and humiliated.


Also Read

The Silver Pieces of the Narcissist

The Pathological Charmer

The Misanthropic Altruist

The Inverted Narcissist

The False Modesty of the Narcissist

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